Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, January 24, 2020


Across Time by "David Grinnell" (Donald A. Wollheim) (1957)
Edge of Time by "David Grinnell" (Donald A. Wollheim) (1958)

Wollheim (1914-1990) was, in his words, a "fair to middling" writer.  In truth, he was better than that.  While certainly not a great writer, he was an entertaining and reliable author who provided exactly what his audience was seeking.  And he was one of the most important figures in the science fiction field.

From his very beginnings in the early days of science fiction fandom, Wollheim was an outspoken voice and a force to be reckoned with.  He helped organize what is deemed the first American science fiction convention, published influential fanzines, participated in feuds, and was a founding member of the Futurians -- a key group of science fiction fans who would go on to become some of the most important professionals in the field.  (The Futurians tended to be radical in their politics and insistent in the forward-thinking role the genre should play, although some of the members joined merely because of their interest in science fiction.  Members over the years included Frederik Pohl, C. M. Kornbluth. John Michel, Judtith Merril, Damon Knight [back when he was damon knight], Robert Lowndes, Richard Wilson, Larry Shaw, Isaac Asimov, James Blish, David Kyle, Arthur Saha, and Hannes Bok.)  A number of the Futurians, including Wollheim, managed to persuade publishers into letting them have their own (abysmally low-budgeted) science fiction magazines to edit -- Wollheim's were Cosmic Stories and Stirring Science Stories.

A few years later, Wollheim edited the first mass-market anthology of science fiction, The Pocket Book of Science Fiction.  He also edited the first hardcover anthology from a major publisher (it was also the first omnibus), The Viking Portable Novels of Science, as well as the first anthology of original science fiction stories, The Girl with the Hungry Eyes.

In 1947 he became editor of Avon Books, publishing books by the little-known authors H. P. Lovecraft, A. Merritt, Jack Williamson, C. S. Lewis, Ralph Milne Farley, Stanton A. Conlentz, and others.  While at Avon he also edited magazines The Avon Fantasy Reader and The Avon Science Fiction Reader.

In 1952, Wollheim moved to Ace Publishing to start their paperback line Ace Books, and introducing the two-cover, two book paperback in which one book (and cover) was published upside down.  The Ace science fiction line published original books as well as reprints of older works and novels that had previously appeared only in the pulps.  With Ace Books, science fiction hit the newsstands in a major way, helping to pioneer its mass market popularity in the 1950s and 1960s.  Among the many authors published by Ace were Philip K. Dick, Robert Silverberg, John Brunner, Ursula Le Guin, Andre Norton, Roger Zelazny, Avram Davidson, Fritz Leiber, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Jack Vance.  Wollheim also paved the way for epic fantasy publishing when Ace released an unauthorized edition of J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Ace also reintroduced Edgar Rice Burroughs to the paperback audience and republished Frank Herbert's Dune.  Also while at Ace, Wollheim began his best-of anthology series World's Best SF with Terry Carr.  He also allowed Carr to edit the now legendary "Ace Science Fiction Special" line.

Wollheim's publisher, A. A. Wynn, died in 1971 and Ace Books was sold to consortium led by a bank.  The new owners knew nothing about publishing and soon bills began to be ignored, author payments were greatly delayed, and budgets were cut back.  Having had enough, Wollheim quit.  The following year a new company, DAW Books, published its first title.  DAW (gee, wonder where they got that name?) was the first mass-market specialty publisher of science fiction and fantasy books.  Beginning with issuing four titles a month, DAW continues strongly to this day -- thirty years after Wollheim's death.

As a writer, Wollheim may be best remembered for his juvenile series about Mike Mars, which extrapolated NASA's missions and projects.  He wrote three books for Winston's popular juvenile "Adventures in Science Fiction" series, as well as a handful of science fiction adventures for Avalon Books, World Publishing, and Ace.  His most famous short story, "Mimiac," was filmed in 1997 (briefly featured in his first film role was Norman Reedus of The Walking Dead fame; you're welcome TWD fans) and spawned two sequels.

Now to the books in question, the first two to be published under Wollheim;s "David Grinnell" pseudonym.

Across Time is the story of Zach Halleck, an Air Force test pilot in the late 1950s.   While in the air, Zach comes across a mysterious flying green sphere -- and actually hits it.  What happened then is hazy, his seat ejected and he blacked out, finding himself bruised and shaken.  After a stint in the hospital and before he got the okay to fly again, he was called in to see a major in the Pentagon.  Told that a few pilots had encountered similar experiences, he was going to be assigned to work with a scientist who was researching the phenomena in Oregon until he was ready to fly again.  The catch:  the scientist was his estranged brother Carl.

Back in 1951, while flying his fourteenth mission over Korea, his plane was downed behind enemy lines and Zach was declared dead.  By the time Zach had made his way through enemy territory and returned home, he found that Carl had married Zach's girlfriend Sylvia.  Zach walked away from his family homestead and never spoke to Carl or Sylvia again.  Now he had to work with them.

Carl had converted the family farm into an experimental lab with several buildings.  Carl had adapted the concept of radar to track these flying spheres and follow them during their flight.  Unfortunately Carl's equipment would also allow the spheres to home in on Carl's signal.  The equipment was powered from an out building.  When a group of these mysterious spheres was spotted and appeared to be coming directly at the farm, Carl asked his brother who was in the power building to turn off the power so that he would not be a target.  Zach hesitated and the next thing he knew the farmhouse was destroyed and both Carl and Sylvia had disappeared, presumably destroyed in the explosion.

While searching the area for the pair, Zach saw another glowing object -- roughly diamond shaped this time -- headed to him.  The was a flash.  And then he woke up.  One million years in the future.  How he got there and why was unknown.  The world was populated by almost human-like beings.  Zach learned the human race that he knew no longer existed.  Now the world was populated by another simian descendent, a nearly human race that had replaced Zach's own people.  Then Zach met a white glowing sphere.

Turns out that humanity had evolved to the point that they no longer needed their bodies.  The spheres were the descendents of the human race.  The greenish spheres were mechanical "robots" sent to explore the Earth of Zach's time.  They were controlled by a rebel group that now occupied the further side of the galaxy.  That minority group's aims were to conquer the galaxy by sending robots back in time to alter events in a way that the majority group would no longer exist.  And. surprise of all surprises, the rebel group was holding Carl and Sylvia on the other end of the galaxy and Carl was working with the rogue spheres.

Joined by the Ever Perfect Lieutenant, an evolved and highly intelligent space ship, Carl travels across the galaxy to rescue his brother and his former fiance and to prevent history being altered.

In Edge of Time, something strange is happening in upstate New York.  Strange phenomena appear and disappear -- dinosaurs, jungles, mountains and volcanoes, as well as strange strange beings and animals.  Warren Alton, a feature writer for the popular magazine People (not the People of today, but a 1950's rival of Life and Look) is assigned to track down this "silly season" story.  Accompanying him is a new photographer, Marge McElroy.  The center of the strange sightings appears to be an isolated laboratory in the mountains.  Turns out it is part of a fantastic project that combined ultimate speed with ultimate cold and managed to create a miniature universe.

Rather than have the story printed, the government worked a deal with the magazine's publisher to have Warren and Marge work at the project, gathering story material to be published only after the project is completed.

Now, about this miniature universe.  It's actually a complete galaxy and it runs on a different, much speeded time frame than ours.  Thus the scientist were able to observe the creation of that galaxy's stars and planets, watch the planets form and cool, and observe the beginning of life on many of the planets...The scientists had developed a series of telescopes that allowed them to watch these nascent worlds in detail.  The miniature galaxy with its billions of stars was self contained and restrained by an atomic force field that the scientists had developed.  Since time and space are relative, the inhabitants of the various planets experience time just as we do.  It's just that billions of years to them may be only a few weeks to us.  And the scientists developed a way to send one's mind into the bodies of the people in the tiny universe.  Once there, the scientist's mind can access all memories and experiences of its host without the host being aware of its "passenger."  while a few minutes pass in our world, months or years may pass for the mind hooked up to one of the natives of the tiny galaxy.  Not only can the scientists view the physical life of a galaxy, but they can also watch various humanoid civilizations rise and fall on a number of planets being viewed through this strange mind meld.  All the planets observed appear to go through similar stages of progress and civilization.

Now the time has come for these worlds to surpass ours in technology and the scientists begin to gather date about new inventions and scientific breakthroughs, from space travel to climate control and beyond.  This information can transform our world and enemies of America will do anything to get it.  Attempts are made to breach the project's security as, on a different plane, interstellar empires and federations are being formed, eventually to become one galaxy-wide federation.  Since the inhabitants of the miniature galaxy are in a closed system, they have no idea there could be anything beyond their own perview; their universe is the one galaxy -- there could be no other.  But since the universe is closed and their galaxy expanding, something had to give.  The expanding galaxy hit its outer limit and began to contract in on itself, eventually to destroy itself. 

Then there appeared The Oracle, a mysterious woman who appeared to eb reborn over and over again across the centuries.  The Oracle believes that there is something beyond her galaxy and that the many different races of people can break through the galaxy to this "elsewhere."  Although the planets and the galaxy may be destroyed, its people could survive.  As the millenia and eons pass in the contained galaxy, The Oracle has the various races build gigantic ships in an effort to escape eventual destruction.

During all this time, Warren and other volunteers entering the life and thoughts of these people and experiencing what they are.  We get an idea of how the civilizations advance through these experiences, allowing reader to identify with the peoples of the contained universe.

Both Across Time and Edge of Time deal with cosmic, centuries-expanding ideas, done in an exciting (albeit from a clunky Fifties-style point of view) manner.  There's nothing major about either of these books, but if you are in the mood for a good old gosh-wow, sense of adventure science fiction read, either volume would do nicely.

1 comment:

  1. Some of Wollheim's short fiction does rise to relatively notable levels of achievement, such as "Mimic" (the film of which was released about the same time as the film of STARSHIP TROOPERS, which felt a bit odd, if belated, in its recognition of and wild variations rung on the work of two notable contributors to the field) but also the likes of "The Rag Thing"...I don't think Wollheim was ever moved to commit to a novel to the same degree.

    A few of the Futurians, as you note, were definitely not political radicals, such as Dave Kyle, their Token Republican (back when that was less likely to be radical)...and some, like James Blish, were radical in rather different ways (Blish was attracted to the theory of Fascism...probably influenced in part by Ezra Pound, whom Blish admired enormously...and Blish and the Futurians' Token Trotskyist Judith Merril apparently had endless arguments during that phase of Blish's political journey.